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An interview with Dermot Healy

(Issue 6, Autumn 2011)

Dermot Healy lives as close to the edge of things as he can, in a house that he bought ‘by the light of a match’ over twenty years ago. He’d been looking for something ‘on an island or up a mountain’ when he came across this place with a friend one night. He and his wife Helen struggled to find it the next day. 
They have spent the years since galvanising themselves against the encroaching salt and wind that wrecks cars and plants, reinforcing the land next to the house with gabions of stone and wire mesh to stop the sea from reaching them. The donkey and horse in the field above the house have panoramic views across the bay to Donegal and to the island where the barnacle geesecan be seen arriving from Greenland in October, and their dog Tiny has the run of the fossil beach below.
        They’re not far from Lissadell House, former home to W. B. Yeats friends, Countess Markievietz and Eva Gore-Booth. Drumcliff, where Yeats body was interred after its return from France, is a few miles further down the road. And just inside Healy’s front door is a reproduction of a painting of John Yeats. ‘Jack refused to finish it. If you look at it closely you’ll see that the hand is unclear, and one eye is unfinished.’ There’s no sense here, however, that Healy lives in Yeats’ shadow. He has reclaimed this coastline as his own. Despite being born in Finea in Co. Westmeath and growing up in Cavan, both inland towns, Healy has the look of the sea about him. Perhaps that’s owing in part to the time he spent working as a fisherman on salmon boats off the west coast of Ireland and prawn boats in Dublin Bay. ‘You went with the tides,’ he says.
Growing up as he did around the lakes in Cavan, he went fishing most days. ‘I remember a pike one time that was 44 lb. That was in Finea. It was the length of the boat. It followed the boat. It followed the fucking boat! Eventually they shot it, brought it into the village, cut it into four and shared it around the village. I don’t know whether it thought the boat was a friend …’
Healy spent a good fifteen years going over and back to London, doing odd jobs. ‘It was a second home,’ he says. He had a stint in security, working nights, which is when he did a lot of his reading, as he notes in his poem ‘Larkin’s Room in a Storm’: ‘In the manager’s office of Pellet and Son/I’m the security man reading Dostoevsky.’
His first stories were published in the Anglo-Celt, his local newspaper in Cavan, and Seamus Heaney offered his backing early on by publishing a large number of his poems in Soundings, an anthology of Irish poetry he was editing at the time. ‘I think of Dermot Healy as the heir to Patrick Kavanagh,’ Heaney has said. 
And yet, Healy says, ‘I’ve written more plays than anything else,’ which seems strange, as he’s so much better known for his novels and poems. But it’s not strange when you realise that he never tried to take them beyond their locale. ‘I put them on, and that was it. I did one a couple of years ago in prison. That was an interesting one, a very interesting one. A whole different ball game. I stayed there overnight. I walked in in the morning and they were all sitting around with a dictionary in front of them. I said “Is there something wrong?” and one of them said, “One of the fucking guards called us a name.” I said, “Well, what did he call you?” “I’m not going to fucking say it again,” he said. I looked over his shoulder and I could see that the page was open at ‘Th’. It was ‘thespian’!”
It’s clear that Healy is very generous with his gift, and very giving of his time, helping other writers along through workshops and by editing the journal Force 10, which he and his wife produce. Indeed Healy seems a little bemused by his own fame, like it’s something that goes on elsewhere, which it is in a way, while he remains in his house by the sea, ‘away from all the harm’. 
‘One time I was in America, I went into a bar in New York and ordered a gin-and-tonic and nothing arrived. The place was full. Barman went, back again, no drink, served the man beside me. And I thought, what the hell is this… Healy noticed a picture behind the bar with Ben Bulben in the background. ‘“Oh, you know Sligo, do you?” the barman asked. I said, “I do, yeah.”‘ “What did you say you wanted?” “A gin and tonic.” “And where do you live in Sligo?”‘ It turned out, he was from just down the road. ‘I went down to Washington the following day and the same thing happened. When I asked the barman why he served all those people before me, he told me he’d seen my picture in the paper and he thought I was a wanted man!’
            Healy’s eye is on everything, and everything seems strange somehow, as if it’s been called up from his imagination. The stories he tells – like the one of the men he saved from the rocks one night by telling them to turn their mobile phones up to the sky so that the rescue helicopter would see them – are set against a day of summer, rare this year, in which we pass the ‘long squares’, rectangular plots of land divided up from a former estate, the place where the Spanish Armada landed and was set upon by savage bare-loined Irish men, past the two fields where the barnacle geese come to land, and the long stretch of Streedagh Beach, off which you can just make out St John’s Lighthouse, with its lights ‘turning off, turning on’.
Back at the house we eat fruit and pancakes while Healy contemplates a pint in his 400-year-old local pub, followed by a night in. The dog sets off down the beach with a neighbour, ‘a captain in the Lebanon for years’.